South African Pinot Noir has been in the spotlight lately, and not only because of the recent symposium hosted in the traditional cradle of its production, the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley. Plantings have more than doubled in the past five years, and grape prices have pretty much done the same thing.
Modern Cape pinot was pioneered by Tim Hamilton Russell and his then winemaker, Peter Finlayson in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and it was something of an acquired taste. At the time, the only planting material available to them was the so-called Swiss clone (BK5) which had been developed for sparkling wine. All pinot clones are low in anthocyanins, the component which imparts colour to the juice. The Swiss clone had less than most, which is what suited it to fizz production. It also lacked fruit intensity. These advantages – from the perspective of a sparkling wine producer – were grave shortcomings when it came to making a still red wine.
Despite all of Hamilton Russell’s considerable marketing skills, the wine market in the 1980s did not take pinot noir into its collective heart. When Finlayson left Hamilton Russell to start his own enterprise – the cellar now known as Bouchard Finlayson – he brought with him his passion and enthusiasm for the great Burgundian red grape. However the market was still small – big enough for a few small producers – but hardly important in the same way as chardonnay or cabernet is to the country’s consumers.
It has grown slowly but consistently since then. Firstly growers have enjoyed an increasingly broad planting selection, with most of the top Dijon clones now available from the nurserymen. Secondly, the local Methode Cape Classique (MCC) industry has expanded beyond recognition. Pinot noir is one of the key varieties in Champagne, and is therefore much in demand among local fizz producers. While many of the newer pinot vineyards have been established for bubbly – in higher yielding, warmer sites, rather than the cool climate locations which would favour red wine production – there is enough quality fruit about to begin changing pinot’s status as a niche cultivar.
The Pinot Celebration held in Hermanus at the end of January anticipates a time when there will be more quality pinot noir about than there is demand for what was has been – at least until now – an often over-priced fashion beverage. It is not uncommon to find the better known Cape examples selling for R300 – R500, a price point at which thoughtful consumers could buy reputable and more mature Burgundies. It was important to celebrate the achievements of the better known performers and to focus on what is happening with pinot noir in South Africa.
It’s not difficult to put up a list of the country’s consistently best pinot producers. It would certainly include Hamilton Russell, Bouchard Finlayson, Cape Chamonix, Paul Cluver, Meerlust, Newton Johnson, and Crystallum. Close enough to these cellars in terms of recent performance would be Creation, Dalla Cia, La Vierge and Catherine Marshall – and there are probably at least another half dozen or so with comparable claims to this league.
This is partly where the pinot producers’ predicament lies: the variety is strongly identified with a countable number of cellars, and all of them, without exception, make relatively small quantities. This is what has helped to keep pinot pricing artificially high. With significant quantities in the pipeline as young vineyards come into production, something will have to give. Either the market will have to grow – a reason no doubt for hosting the Pinot Party in Hermanus – or the pricing pretensions of the long established players will have to make some concessions to reality. Already we see Paul Cluver creating a popularly priced offering aimed, it would seem, at moving volume and increasing the market. Sadly – both for Cluver and for the pinot market – anything as ordinary as his recently released “The Village” 2012 will fail on both counts.